A US small-town mayor sued the oil business. Then Exxon went after him | Local weather disaster

Serge Dedina is a surfer, environmentalist and mayor of Imperial Seashore, a small working-class metropolis on the California coast.

He’s additionally, if the fossil gas business is to be believed, on the coronary heart of a conspiracy to shake down huge oil for a whole bunch of tens of millions of {dollars}.

Imperial Seashore, California

ExxonMobil and its allies have accused Dedina of colluding with different public officers throughout California to extort cash from the fossil-fuel business. Attorneys even searched his telephone and laptop for proof he plotted with officers from Santa Cruz, a metropolis situated almost 500 miles north of Imperial Seashore.

The issue is, Dedina had by no means heard of a Santa Cruz conspiracy. Few folks had.

“The one factor from Santa Cruz on my telephone was movies of my youngsters browsing there,” Dedina stated. “I really like the truth that some lawyer in a very costly swimsuit, sitting in some horrible workplace looking for proof that we have been in some form of conspiracy with Santa Cruz, had to take a look at movies of my youngsters browsing.”

That’s the place the laughter stopped.

The legal professionals discovered no proof to again up their declare. However that didn’t cease the business from persevering with to make use of its authorized muscle to attempt to intimidate Dedina, who leads one of many poorest small cities within the area.

The mayor grew to become a goal after Imperial Seashore filed a lawsuit in opposition to ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and greater than 30 different fossil-fuel corporations demanding they pay the large prices of defending the town from rising seas brought on by the local weather disaster.

Properties alongside the ultimate stretch of Imperial Seashore coast earlier than reaching the border with Mexico. {Photograph}: John Francis Peters/The Guardian

Imperial Seashore’s lawsuit alleges the oil giants dedicated fraud by overlaying up analysis exhibiting that burning fossil fuels destroys the atmosphere. The business then lied concerning the proof for local weather change for many years, intentionally delaying efforts to curb carbon emissions.

The town’s lawsuit was among the many first of a wave of litigation filed by two dozen municipalities and states throughout the US that would value the fossil-fuel business billions of {dollars} in compensation for the environmental devastation and the deception.

Dedina says his minority majority group of about 27,000 can’t start to afford the tens of tens of millions of {dollars} it would value to maintain at bay the waters bordering three sides of his financially strapped metropolis. The worst of current storms have turned Imperial Seashore into an island.

One evaluation calculated that, with out costly mitigation measures, rising sea ranges will ultimately swamp a few of the metropolis’s neighbourhoods, routinely flood its two faculties and overwhelm its drainage system.

Imperial Seashore’s annual price range is $20m. Exxon’s chief govt, Darren Woods, was paid greater than $15m final yr.

“We don’t have a pot to piss in on this metropolis. So why not go after the oil corporations?” he stated. “The lawsuit is a practical method to creating the folks that brought about sea degree rise pay for the impacts it has on our metropolis.”

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That’s not how Exxon, the US’s largest oil firm, noticed it. Its legal professionals famous that Imperial Seashore filed its case in July 2017, concurrently two California counties, Marin and San Mateo. The county and metropolis of Santa Cruz adopted six months later with comparable fits looking for compensation to deal with growing wildfires and drought brought on by world heating.

Exxon alleged that the sudden burst of litigation, and the truth that the municipalities shared a legislation agency specialising in environmental instances, Sher Edling, was proof of collusion.

Exxon filed lawsuits claiming the municipalities conspired to extort cash from the corporate by following a method developed throughout an environmental convention on the Scripps Establishment of Oceanography in La Jolla, 25 miles north of Imperial Seashore, 9 years in the past.

The assembly, organised by the Local weather Accountability Institute and the Union of Involved Scientists, produced a report outlining how authorized methods utilized by US states in opposition to the tobacco business within the Nineties may very well be utilized to instances in opposition to fossil gas corporations.

Dedina was additionally focused by one of many US’s greatest enterprise teams on the forefront of business resistance to elevated regulation to cut back greenhouse gases, the Nationwide Affiliation of Producers, and a rightwing thinktank, the Power & Setting Authorized Institute.

Mayor Dedina looks out to sea.
Mayor Dedina appears to be like out to sea. {Photograph}: John Francis Peters/The Guardian

The manufacturing commerce group was behind the efforts to acquire information from Dedina’s telephone and paperwork in 2018. In its public disclosure request to the mayor’s workplace, NAM referred to as Imperial Seashore’s lawsuit “litigation primarily based on political or ideological objections extra appropriately addressed by means of the political course of”.

Exxon is making an attempt to make use of a Texas legislation that enables companies to go on a fishing expedition for incriminating proof by questioning people underneath oath even earlier than any authorized motion is filed in opposition to them. The corporate is attempting to pressure Dedina, two different members of Imperial Seashore’s authorities, and officers from different jurisdictions, to undergo questioning on the grounds they have been joined in a conspiracy in opposition to the oil business.

“A group of particular pursuits and opportunistic politicians are abusing legislation enforcement authority and authorized course of to impose their viewpoint on local weather change,” the oil agency claimed. “ExxonMobil finds itself immediately in that conspiracy’s crosshairs.”

A Texas district decide permitted the request to depose Dedina, however then a court docket of appeals overturned the choice final yr. The state supreme court docket is contemplating whether or not to take up the case.

The goal on Dedina is a part of a wider sample of retaliation in opposition to these suing Exxon and different oil corporations.

In an uncommon transfer in 2016, Exxon persuaded a Texas decide to order the legal professional common of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, to journey to Dallas to be deposed about her motives for investigating the corporate for alleged fraud for suppressing proof on local weather change. The decide additionally ordered that New York’s legal professional common, Eric Schneiderman, be “accessible” in Dallas on the identical day in case Exxon needed to query him a couple of comparable investigation.

Healey accused Exxon of attempting to “squash the prerogative of state attorneys common to do their jobs”. The decide reversed the deposition order a month later and Healey filed a lawsuit in opposition to the corporate in 2019, which continues to be awaiting trial.

However comparable techniques persuaded the US Virgin Islands legal professional common to close down his investigation of the oil big.

Patrick Parenteau, a legislation professor and former director of the Environmental Regulation Middle at Vermont legislation college, stated the try to query Dedina and different officers is a part of a broader technique by the oil business to counter lawsuits with its personal litigation.

“These instances are frivolous and vexatious. Intimidation is the objective. Simply making it value so much and be painful to tackle Exxon. They assume that in the event that they make the case painful sufficient, Imperial Seashore will stop,” he stated.

The city’s lawsuit claims it faces a ‘significant and dangerous sea-level rise’.
The town’s lawsuit claims it faces a ‘important and harmful sea-level rise’. {Photograph}: John Francis Peters/The Guardian

If the intent is to kill off the litigation in opposition to the oil business, it’s not working. Officers from different municipalities have referred to as Exxon’s transfer “repugnant”, “a sham” and “outrageous”, and have vowed to press on with their lawsuits.

Dedina described the motion as a “bullying tactic” by the oil business to keep away from accountability.

“The one conspiracy is [that] a bunch of fits and fossil-fuel corporations determined to pollute the earth and make local weather change worse, after which lie about it,” he stated. “They make more cash than our whole metropolis has in a yr.”

The town’s lawsuit claims it faces a “important and harmful sea-level rise” by means of the remainder of this century that threatens its existence. Imperial Seashore commissioned an evaluation of its vulnerability to rising sea ranges which concluded that almost 700 properties and companies have been threatened at a value of greater than $100m. It stated that flooding will hit about 40% of the town’s roads, together with some that might be underneath water for lengthy durations. Two elementary faculties should be moved. The town’s seaside, thought to be among the finest websites for browsing on the California coast, is being eroded by a couple of foot a yr.

Imperial Seashore sits on the southern finish of San Diego bay. Below one worst-case situation, the bay might merge with the Tijuana River estuary to the south and completely submerge a lot of the town’s housing and roads.

A view of the Tijuana River Estuary.
A view of the Tijuana River estuary. {Photograph}: John Francis Peters/The Guardian

The town has obtained some assist with creating pure local weather limitations. The Fish and Wildlife Service restored 400 acres of wetland subsequent to the town as a nationwide wildlife refuge which additionally acts as a barrier to flooding, and is predicted to revive different wetlands along with the Port of San Diego. A grant is paying for improved gear to warn of floods.

However that also leaves the large prices of constructing new faculties and drainage techniques, and adapting different infrastructure. Dedina stated that with out the oil corporations stumping up, it received’t occur.

“Folks ask, how did you go in opposition to the world’s largest fossil gas corporations? Isn’t that scary? No. What’s scary is coastal flooding and the concept that complete cities can be underneath water,” stated the mayor.

“Actually, deliver it on. I can’t wait to make our case. I can’t wait to take the battle to them as a result of we now have nothing to lose.”

This story is revealed as a part of Overlaying Local weather Now, a worldwide collaboration of stories shops strengthening protection of the local weather story

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